“We want to live in the present,” he said, “and the only history that is worth [anything] is the history we make today.”
Sadly, that seems to be the attitude of many (maybe most?) people today, too. And with the devaluing and debunking of our history we see in our schools and media, that situation promises only to get worse.
But Henry Ford’s later life indicated that he might have begun to change his mind about history, that he had begun to see benefits of history. As he saw negative consequences of industrialization and the perceived loss of important life values, he changed his attitude toward history. That change indicated that there was hope for him after all. If there was hope for him, there might even be hope for us, too.
In the latter years of his life, Ford realized the importance of both preserving the past and teaching the following generations about it. Acting upon that realization, he began collecting memorabilia and artifacts, large and small, from bygone days. They included agricultural implements and equipment from the pre-automobile days, tools, wagons, miscellaneous pieces of furniture, radios, and toys. He had entire buildings disassembled, moved, and reassembled. Among those structures were a country store, a blacksmith shop, and even Thomas Edison’s workshop.
Although Ford’s collecting was haphazard, eclectic, and disorganized, his heart was in the right place. As he saw the increasing congestion of city streets, sprawl in the suburbs, and early signs of the decline of family farming, he realized that preserving and teaching the past was critical to the future of generations to come. It was essential, he decided, that the coming generations learn the values and ways of the past so they could deal with the problems and challenges of their present and future.
From his collecting mania was born the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village http://www.thehenryford.org in Dearborn, Michigan. (He also would assemble a smaller but similarly purposed collection, including an entire laboratory of Edison’s, at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida, https://www.edisonfordwinterestates.org/ .)
Ford’s changed attitude toward history was reflected in the following statement by Winston Churchill: “The farther you look back, the farther you can see ahead.”
Nearby history is all around us. We see it every day as we go about the normal routines of our lives. But we usually don’t really see it. We have become so used to its being there that we tend to forget about it. We don’t discuss it. We don’t teach it. Therefore, each succeeding generation knows less and less about it. We discard or tear down what remains (in the name of “progress,” of course). We forget it. Much of what we manage to remember about it we remember incorrectly. What little gets passed on may or may not be accurate; hence, our history is lost to the future generations.
I’m looking forward to exploring the paths of my nearby past through both published and unpublished documents, oral history presented at our county branch libraries, artifacts from the area, the community’s architecture over time, and the landscape over which we drive every day. I look forward to studying these things in the larger context of regional, national, and international history. (The latter two areas of study seem to overshadow nearby and regional history, but I hope to reverse that in my own studies.)
In the process of “doing” nearby history, I’m sure that I’ll gather myriad files of possible material for future writing projects. So much to share! So little time!
What can you find in your own “nearby history?” Consider sharing some of the things you learn in the comment section below.